By Paul Davis, WF360 Mississippi Alluvial Valley Migration Editor
With bitter cold temperatures finally subsiding and wetlands starting to thaw, duck numbers in the Volunteer State continue to hold strong. Even better, this week’s warm up has hunters hoping for better success.
The peak of the migration usually occurs during the first week of January, says Dan Fuqua, a waterfowl biologist with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), and this season looks to be right on schedule. “This is the peak right now,” Fuqua says, “and the refuges along the Mississippi River are holding a lot of birds.”
The White Lake area had around 90,000 ducks last week, when TWRA staff flew the midwinter survey, while the Black Bayou and Horn’s Bluff areas were each holding about 55,000 birds. The Obion/Forked Deer Bottoms area in Dyer and Lauderdale counties had 52,000 birds, and at Maness Swamp in Weakley County, there were just over 20,000 birds.
At the Reelfoot Lake National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Lake and Obion counties, 80,000 ducks were counted, and 1,200 were surveyed at the nearby Lake Isom NWR. The Chickasaw NWR was devoid of ducks because of ice, although the Hatchie NWR had 12,750 birds and the Lower Hatchie NWR had 5,500.
Observers also counted 5,000 ducks on Kentucky Lake, although all the wildlife management areas nearby were frozen over.
“I was surprised that the birds have hung around,” says TWRA Wildlife Manager Patrick Lemons, who flew the survey. “There’s a bunch of ducks in West Tennessee.”
Fuqua notes that survey crews saw a larger than average number of birds on private land, but the birds mostly appeared to be staging in areas that were inaccessible to hunters. “They were keeping the water open in some fields, but hunters can’t get to them because of the ice,” he says.
Mallards make up the largest percentage of Tennessee’s ducks, Fuqua says, although pintail numbers remain strong in the state. “I saw more pintails than I’ve seen in a long time near the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge,” he says.
West Tennessee is also holding some Canada geese, although they’re mostly resident birds, and snow goose numbers are strong, especially along the river.
The problem for duck hunters over the last week, says Parker’s Outfitting owner Ben Parker at Reelfoot Lake, is the birds have been hunkered down on the few open-water areas they can find and are not moving as much as usual. “They’ve got a few open holes in the refuges, but the lake is frozen three to four inches thick,” Parker says. “I really don’t know why they’re still there.”
Duck hunters normally beg for cold weather, says Final Flight Outfitters owner Kelley Powers of Union City, but right now they’re looking for a warm up to bring more birds back to the area from the south and to improve the hunting conditions. Fortunately, that warm up has arrived, and experienced hunters are getting excited about the hunting prospects.
“It really ought to be good when it warms up,” Powers says, noting hunters should see an increase in duck numbers as more open water becomes available.
“Every year, it seems a thaw is the best time to hunt,” adds Jake Yoes, a TWRA game warden and avid waterfowler in Tipton County. “If it does thaw, it should be really good.”
With just a few weeks to go in the season, Powers suggests hunters change tactics from those used earlier in the season to up their odds of success.
“Cutting back on calling is the key,” he says, noting finesse calling is preferred when the wind isn’t blowing.
When a bitter chill is on, Powers also suggests hunters concentrate their efforts during the “warmer part of the day, from late morning to early afternoon,” because that’s when the ducks are most active.
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Paul Davis is a writer and photographer with a lifelong passion for the outdoors, including waterfowl, turkey, and deer hunting. He resides in southeast Missouri and will be providing migration, habitat, and hunting information for Mo., Ark., Tenn., Miss., and Ky., through the 2017-2018 waterfowl season